Law enforcement agencies in Maryland are making more sobriety stops. Most advocates of safe driving praise the strategy, but critics say it diverts police from catching more dangerous drivers.

Police pick up the pace with DUI checkpoints

December 17, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The police had posted signs on Interstate 695 warning of the checkpoint ahead. Michael Corron could have avoided it by taking the next exit.

Eager to get home after a party, the 43-year-old Glen Burnie man didn't alter his route. Immediately after passing the toll plaza for the Key Bridge, he was stopped by a Maryland Transportation Authority Police officer and directed to the side of the road. After stumbling and swaying through a field sobriety test, he was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.

So there he sat on the curb two weeks ago, shivering in a dirty blue sweat shirt, his hands cuffed behind his back, watching police search his black Jeep and confiscate bottles of Coors Light. "He's already had three DUIs," the officer said after checking Corron's driving record.

Similar scenes will play out frequently in the next few weeks as police agencies in Maryland step up their use of sobriety checkpoints for the holiday season.

Critics question their effectiveness, but such stops are winning increased acceptance in law enforcement circles as a year-round strategy in the fight against drunken driving.

During the 1990s, Maryland was identified as a state that used checkpoints infrequently. That is changing. Precise statistics are scarce, but law enforcement and highway safety officials say the use of checkpoints has increased.

Maryland State Police, who used to conduct 10 to 20 checkpoints annually, staged 76 in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, resulting in 156 alcohol and drug arrests.

Like many police agencies, the troopers are planning more through the New Year's weekend.

Sgt. Charles Smith, the state police drunken-driving enforcement coordinator, said the checkpoints are an "effective tool" in the agency's efforts to make the streets safer.

"If you come through a sobriety checkpoint and you're impaired, you're going to be locked up," he said.

That was the experience of Benneth Jennard Henderson, who drove his red pickup truck through the Key Bridge toll plaza just before 11:30 p.m. on a recent Friday. The 26-year-old Pasadena man walked tentatively but didn't noticeably stagger when directed to walk a straight line. Asked to hold one of his feet 6 inches off the ground, however, he teetered precariously.

"You picked the wrong night, Bubba," one of the arresting officers said.

Catherine Leahan, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Authority Police, said Henderson registered a 0.09 percent blood alcohol content in a Breathalyzer test. At 0.07 percent, a driver is considered impaired; at 0.08 and higher, a motorist faces a more serious DUI charge.

Henderson later told a reporter that he had been "traumatized" by an "unfair" experience, adding that he had never been in trouble before. He said his unsteadiness was the result of a foot injury, not intoxication.

"I was hoping that the officer would be a little more understanding because I didn't feel I was intoxicated to the point where I couldn't operate a vehicle," he said.

Not everybody is convinced of the wisdom of using checkpoints to arrest people such as Henderson. Radley Balko, a researcher at the libertarian Cato Institute, said law enforcement should concentrate on catching extremely intoxicated drivers - those with blood alcohol content of 0.15 percent or more - who are involved in the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities. He said checkpoints are ineffective for that purpose.

"They're set up to catch people at 0.08 or 0.09, people who are social drinkers," he said. "Drunk driving deaths have started to inch up again. A lot of that can be attributed to the fact that law enforcement resources are being diverted to catching people who aren't much of a threat."

Mothers Against Drunk Driving strongly disagrees, contending that checkpoints save lives.

Nancy Kelly, public policy liaison for MADD Maryland, acknowledged that some people might disapprove of checkpoints on libertarian grounds, but she questioned the motives of other opponents.

"People who are opposed to them may tend to be the people who drink and drive and are concerned about being caught," she said.

Random checks

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said that if the police can show they didn't single out a specific group, the arrests made at checkpoints will lead to convictions.

"They've been tested in courts both locally and federally, and consistently upheld for decades," Gansler said. "The checkpoint will always be upheld as long as it's random in nature."

Thomas J. Gianni, law enforcement coordinator for the State Highway Administration, said the more often checkpoints are used, the more effective they become. "They serve to educate the public with regard to the risks of impaired driving," he said.

Gianni said local police departments - with the exception of Baltimore County's - are stepping up their use of checkpoints. Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's counties have been especially aggressive in using the tactic, he said.

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